Did Strychnine Kill the Dinosaurs?

Strychnine structureStrychnine seems to be a commonly searched entry in the ChemSpider database. I am not sure whether that means there are poisoners among the users or whether it is people hoping to find out more about the recent case of a man accused of poisoning his neighbors’ dogs with a gopher bait pesticide containing strychnine. Alternatively, it could be people hoping to learn more about recent research into the unusual poses struck by dinosaur fossils.

Dinosaur fossils always seem to show the creatures “voguing”, as if there were some Jurassic equivalent of the 90s dance craze kicking off some time BC. But, the odd postures of these long-dead animals would actually suggest that they had an agonized death – the wide-open mouth, head thrown back and recurved tail – all point to poisoning, disease, or asphyxiation, according to two Berkeley paleontologists.

The usual explanation for the postures is that the dinosaurs simply died in water and currents dragged their bones into these odd positions and they were frozen in time as sediments settled and fossilization began.

Berkeley veterinarian-turned-paleontologist Cynthia Marshall Faux has seen a lot of animals that have been poisoned, hit by vehicles, or died of painful disease. They often arrive displaying the same postures as these fossils. She believes that the posturing dinosaurs may have met unnatural deaths, choking on volcanic ash, diseased, or poisoned.

The very same posture is seen in several disease states as well as in strychnine poisoning. Srtychnine is a highly bitter alkaloid found in several plant species, but it is its LD50 of approx. 10 mg per kilogram of body weight that points to its highly toxic nature. Strychnine causes muscular convulsions and eventually death through asphyxia or sheer exhaustion. Virtually all articulated fossils of Archaeopteryx have been found with the characteristic posture of the strychnine poisoned. We may never know exactly how these creatures died, but could it be that there was a dinosaur poisoner in the wild during the time of the dinosaurs?


  1. Jean-Claude Bradley

    Do you mean LD50 of 10 mg/kg?

  2. David Bradley

    For a vegetarian dinosaur weighing 100 tonnes (e.g. Argentinosaurus ), a toxic dose would amount to one kilogram of strychine, which would mean the animal would have to eat a vast quantity of any strychnine-containing plant material. However, archeopteryx only grew to about half a meter or so in height and weighed just a few kilos so would need a much smaller total dose. The LD50 range can be as low as 1 mg/kg. Individual people have been known to die from as little as a 5 mg total dose of strychnine.

  3. Antony Williams

    Every time I hear the word strychnine I recall a book I read a few years ago called the Diary of Jack the Ripper () . In that book Maybrick, the so-called Ripper (and diarist) used strychine…”He had become addicted to arsenic and strychnine after a bout with malaria, and often mixed the drugs with his food. While arsenic was frequently prescribed for headaches, it was also used as an aphrodisiac-a benefit that James shared with a mistress in London.”
    Now, while the book itself was a great read…and I recommend it for its excellent plot…there are many interesting comments including http://www.parmaq.com/truecrime/JackTheRipper1.htm and eventually a confession from the author it was a forgery (http://www.casebook.org/suspects/james_maybrick/mb-con.bjan5.html)
    From dinosaurs to Strychnine to Jack the Ripper to forgery…how’s that for “semantic”

  4. David Bradley

    Yep, context is all, even when it comes to poisoning

  5. Peter S Cilione

    Very interesting. You know, they don’t even know for sure what caused the decline of the romans. Lead, mosquito’s, etc. How difficult to know of what happened to dinosaurs. Their bodies might have been contorted due to what happens starting from death. Any poison found in them? Peter.

  6. That’s right Peter, no one knows for certain, and as I alluded to in one of my follow up comments, there’d have to be a rather huge intake of the plant to cause death like this, I suspect something altogether different was the cause. Still, it is an interesting piece of investigation and even if it only shows itself up to be a negative result then it was worth reporting if only to exclude this notion from future studies.


  7. Peter,

    You seem to know a little about the Romans…did they lose jobs from drunkeness?

    Lisa kiss kiss

  8. All right, I’ve decided to come clean. About the Romans. I know, I know, you’re wondering what I know about their demise; Well, it’s like this…

    I was there. Not in Rome, not there!!, but in New York, Rome, New York. There’s a big Air Force air base, and the people are involved in research.

    It’s not generally known, and I probably shouldn’t say what I know, but the thing is, what happened there will come out one day, it might was well be me who makes the first deal — that’s usually who gets the best deal from the prosecutors, right?

    Besides if anyone asks, I’l; just deny this. I never said anything. I won’t say anything, honest Dutch.